Perspectives Online

A dirty job, but someone's got to do it

Colleen Hudak-Wise and her laboratory services staff test as many as 300,000 soil samples each year at the Agronomic Services Division of the NCDA&CS.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

From her office window, Dr. Colleen Hudak-Wise can sometimes watch deer wander through the grassy fields that surround the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Donald W. Eaddy Building. But then it's head down, back to work overseeing laboratory services for the department's Agronomic Services Division, where she was promoted to assistant director last December. She also serves as chief of the Plant/Waste/Solution Section.

Her staff of some 50 people is responsible for testing as many as 300,000 soil samples each year, a free service to any North Carolina farmer or homeowner wanting to know about the nutrient content and acidity of his or her soil. During the January warm spell, says Hudak-Wise, farmers took advantage of the good weather, inundating the lab with as many as 5,000 of the little cartons of soil every day. The division also puts soil samples under the microscope to test for plant-parasitic nematodes (at a cost of $2 per sample).

"Our lab is a mass-production operation," she says, explaining the process of drying, grinding and scooping the soil before it's mixed with an extractant and tested. "People are in constant movement." The staff is especially committed to helping the state's farmers with their agronomic decisions, she says, so their operations can be more efficient and environmentally sound.

The division also quantifies the nutrient content of various farm-generated waste materials, such as swine lagoon liquid and poultry litter, as well as agricultural solutions, such as irrigation water, hydroponic nutrient solutions and livestock water. Waste samples, which cost $4 per sample, often get sent to the lab in plastic soda bottles or Ziploc bags.

As tobacco growers increasingly use greenhouses to raise seedlings, the state lab is testing more and more water samples for float bed systems. Plant tissue analysis is another important service provided by the division, which analyzes more than 15,000 plant samples annually to identify nutrient problems before they reach a critical stage.

A native of Ohio, Hudak-Wise attended Kent State University, taught high school biology and then earned a master's of science in agronomy at The Ohio State University. One of her graduate school advisors, recognizing the national reputation of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, recommended Hudak-Wise never turn down an invitation to study at N.C. State.

Such an invitation came in 1988.

"As an agronomist, I was intrigued by the diversity of crops in North Carolina," she said. "And as a Buckeye, I'd never seen cotton in the field, or peanuts in the field." She came to Raleigh and earned a doctorate in crop science, writing her dissertation on drought resistance in soybeans.

After post-doctorate research in Germany, she returned to North Carolina to work for the state's Pesticide Section (NCDA&CS). During her tenure there, she served as the certification manager, developing the state exams required of anyone who wants to be a pesticide applicator. In that job, she collaborated with Dr. Wayne Buhler, assistant professor of horticultural science and Extension specialist, who develops the pesticide application training programs. Drs. Hudak-Wise and Buhler worked together to establish the Southern Regional Pesticide Safety Education Center at N.C. State, the first training program of its kind in the United States.

In her new job, Hudak-Wise continues to work with College faculty, assisting them in a variety of research and Extension projects. She's currently working with Dr. Carl Crozier on a project to improve fertility management of kenaf and with Dr. Brian Whipker on a study of geranium nutrition.

Hudak-Wise and her husband, William, a civilian employee of the U.S. Army, recently bought a home with a backyard, and so this summer will be the first in which she can get her hands dirty planting her own geraniums.

-Anton Zuiker